Two hours drive from New York, in the picturesque town of Hyde Park, there are thousands of letters written by Eleanor Roosevelt to Lorena Hickok, a pioneer journalist who was the first woman to get a front-page byline in The New York Times. The letters are open to the public and have been published and mentioned in research. So what keeps the lesbian affair of America’s greatest first lady in a historical “glass closet,” and prevents it from claiming its rightful place as one of the greatest love stories of the 20th century?
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At the beginning of the week, the New York International Fringe Festival chose the play “Hick: A Love Story” – which recounts the relationship between the two women based on their love letters – for its prestigious Encore Series. Playwright-actress Terry Baum portrays Hickok, nicknamed Hick, in the one-woman show. She is careful not to stray from the original text of the letters Roosevelt wrote, thus allowing the audience to judge the nature of their relationship.
The play follows the development of the relationship from the moment in June 1932 that Hick convinces her boss at The Associated Press to assign a female correspondent to Roosevelt during the first presidential campaign of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The women become close friends. According to the play, they also become lovers very quickly. Hick suggests to Eleanor that she hold regular press conferences just for women and also write a daily newspaper column, and helps her with both endeavors.
These decisions, radical for the time, differentiate the brand new first lady from her predecessor, and position her as a politician who wants to influence state affairs.
“We don’t really know what would have happened if Hick hadn’t been there at this crucial time,” Baum tells Haaretz. “She hated, hated, hated the idea of being a first lady. And, of course, it always cheers you up to be in love. So at that time, Hick was the most important person in her life, and she continued to be important throughout her life.”
‘Rotund lady with a husky voice’
Eleanor wore a ring to her husband’s inauguration that Hick gave her, but the romance had already cost Hick dearly. She was forced to leave her AP post, since her close relations with Eleanor damaged her credibility as a White House correspondent. The high society from which Eleanor and her close friends came from, including the lesbians among them, never accepted Hick – a farmer’s daughter who forged a career in a man’s world – as one of them.
On stage, “Hick” reads an article from Time magazine, which describes her as “a rotund lady with a husky voice, a peremptory manner, baggy clothes”, just one of the many insults she suffered from the press during her relationship with Eleanor. “It’s very hard to be a butch lesbian in the world, even now, let alone in the 1930s,” says Baum.
Eventually, Roosevelt begins to distance herself from Hick, especially publicly. But even after their romantic relationship ends, they continue to write each other and be present in each other’s lives. “From my reading, there was a real desire to be with Hick, to spend time with Hick. I think she was a refuge for Eleanor,” says Baum.
At the end of the play, Baum shows how Hick, in a gown and glasses, wavers over a tough dilemma: What should she do with the many letters Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her? Hick weighs destroying the letters, and indeed burned many of them from the first year they knew each other. She also tried retyping all the letters, to destroy any romantic details in Roosevelt’s writings.
“Hick actually started retyping these letters, she had an understanding that these letters had important information for history, but that she had to delete everything to do with Eleanor’s feelings for her,” she says. “That’s how she started out, with the intent of deleting all that stuff. She felt it was too shocking, too terrible. But it was just an impossible task. And, of course, retyping – what is that? The archives are not very interested in her retyping,” laughs Baum.
“Hick darling, all day I’ve thought of you & another birthday when I will be with you, & yet tonight you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you. I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and think, ‘She does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!’” Roosevelt writes on Hickok’s birthday, in March 1933.
“Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant,” she writes in another letter. Referring to Eleanor’s son, she continues: “Jimmy was near and I couldn’t say ‘Je t’aime et je t’adore’ as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.”
‘Hiding in plain sight’
Hickok willed her letters to the U.S. National Archives, which received them upon her death in 1968, on condition that they be published only 10 years after her passing. The letters did become available to the public in 1978, and excerpts have been published in a number of biographies and anthologies. However, almost half a century on, and despite the progress of the LGBT movement in the United States, the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most admired American women of the 20th century, and pioneer journalist Lorena Hickok is still not familiar to the wider public.
“In San Francisco, the great majority of the lesbians who came to watch the show didn’t know about Eleanor’s lesbian relationship. It’s something that is hiding in plain sight,” says Baum.
However, it seems that objections to recognizing the relationship between the two women doesn’t come from the Roosevelt descendants. Her grandchildren, for example, may not make unequivocal declarations about the sexual orientation of their famed grandmother, but neither do they try to deny the romance.
“Hick was a single woman, she didn’t have her own attachments, and she needed Eleanor as much as Eleanor needed her. These were two needy people and they discovered that they could fulfill each other’s needs,“ says Franklin D. Roosevelt III, grandson of Eleanor Roosevelt, in an interview for the PBS production “Eleanor Roosevelt,” which was directed and written by Sue Williams.
“I have no idea whether Lorena Hickok had a homosexual relationship with my grandmother or not. And my feeling about that is kind of, Who cares? They were very good friends. And if they could make each other happy in any way, then that’s what’s important,” adds Nina Gibson, granddaughter of Eleanor Roosevelt
Another Roosevelt granddaughter, Nancy Roosevelt Ireland, granted Baum permission to use the letters in her stage production.
“Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters are not in the public domain. You have to have permission from her estate,” explains Baum. “I contacted them long ago, and sent them an email with my résumé. She asked my opinion on their relationship, and I said, ‘They were in love with each other, and eventually Eleanor fell out of love. Hick never did, and they remained close friends for the rest of Eleanor’s life.’ She gave me permission.”
Baum adds that another descendant of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt came to see the show. “She was very excited and told me she loved the play,” notes Baum.
However, despite the serenity that Eleanor Roosevelt’s family demonstrates in the wake of attempts to make her romance accessible to audiences, many respected historians still deny it. Doris Kearns Goodwin, writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “No Ordinary Times” about the Roosevelts during World War II, describes how Hick lived in the White House in a bedroom adjacent to Eleanor’s (between 1941-1945), but asserts that the relationship was not romantic.
“It’s terrible,” bemoans Baum. “She takes a letter and quotes the beginning and the end, but leaves out the middle that has the explicitly romantic part. And she wins a Pulitzer Prize! You won a Pulitzer Prize, you’re a historian, and you’re trying to do this incredibly dishonest thing. You’re trying to erase the reality of this lesbian relationship. Of course, this is what happens, mostly successfully. But luck would have it that Eleanor wrote these amazing letters, and Hick kept them. Gay people have no history. It’s all been erased. So this is a precious piece of evidence, and it involves a woman who, in my opinion, was the greatest American woman of the 20th century.”
The most salient example of this in recent years was PBS’ 2014 documentary series “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” In that series, esteemed documentarian Ken Burns presented the romances of Franklin D. Roosevelt with other women – including Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer – while Lorena Hickok is portrayed as his wife’s platonic friend. When asked why he decided not to mention even once the romantic relationship between the two women in any of the series’ 12 hours and present “an intimate look” at the family, Burns was unapologetic.
“I assume when you say a relationship you are assuming that there was a sexual relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. We have no evidence whatsoever of that, and none of the historians and experts believe it,” Burns said at a television critics event in September 2014. “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts], not a tabloid, and we just don’t know ... We have to be very careful because sometimes we want to read into things that aren’t there.
Baum rejects Burn’s viewpoint. “It’s just nonsense – there are 2,336 letters and, I’m sorry, but you are just wrong!” she counters. “And not only that, you are being very dishonest. Burns says there is no historian who supports this idea, and that’s a lie. Because Blanche Wiesen Cook does support it, and she’s the main historian of Eleanor’s life now.”
Still, Burns was criticized for his treatment of Roosevelt’s and Hickok’s relationship, a fact that, when viewed together with Baum’s play being chosen as the favorite production at the New York fringe festival, signals a possible change in the paradigm. “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women? Burns, after all, had no problem discussing, quite extensively, FDR’s sexual affair with Eleanor’s secretary Lucy Mercer,” wrote Michelangelo Signorile, Gay Voices editor-at-large at The Huffington Post, in response to Burns’ comments. Before that, back in 2011, The New York Review of Books had argued, “That the Hickok relationship was indeed erotic now seems beyond dispute considering what is known about the letters they exchanged.”
“People have a lot of homophobia still,” concludes Baum. “There is a feeling that there’s something terrible about having a lesbian relationship and that it would besmirch Eleanor Roosevelt in everyone’s eyes – and therefore we have to deny it existed. But I think it’s the exact opposite. People would see that Eleanor had such guts to do this thing, to follow her passion, and to live a life that was not just politically forceful and exciting, but also a personal life that really gave her a lot of happiness and pleasure – that she just went for it. I think it makes her more admirable to a 21st century person, and to young people especially.”